The vast majority of employment relationships in place today are at-will. That means that there is no contract specifically governing the employment relationship between the employer and a given individual employee. At-will employment generally has the following characteristics:
- Unspecified duration. At-will employment is characterized by an undefined period into the future, but without a commitment for a certain minimum period. The vast majority of employer-employee relationships are at-will.
For example, a small business retail establishment who hires someone to work as a sales associate either full or part-time is typically an at-will employee. Generally, employers advertise their staffing needs, prospective employees apply, and then the employer hires one or more applicants. Often the new employee is provided employment forms, but not typically a written contract binding them to service for a certain period of time.
- Can be terminated without cause. Generally the employment relationship remains intact so long as the relationship remains mutually beneficial to both employee and employer. While no cause is required to terminate the at-will employment relationship, causal explanations for terminations related to financial hardships or corporate mergers are common. Termination for cause might include, stealing, lying, failing a drug or alcohol test, falsifying records, insubordination, and deliberately violating company policy.
When an employee finds himself out of a job, he or she often struggles to understand why. However, the law does not require employers to provide a cause, or explanation, for the termination in an at-will employment relationship.
- Can be terminated without notice. Employees customarily give current employers a period of notice before commencing employment with a new employer, particularly if the new employer is in the same field as the current employer. However, this notice period is not required in at-will employment relationship and is done merely as a courtesy to the old employer.
So which employees are not at-will employees? Employees covered by a written contract, such as a union agreement or other contract, are not at-will employees. Employment contracts are common for temporary employees and high level executives among other individuals. It is also possible to have an implied contract based on your employer’s words or actions.
In addition, under the laws of Virginia (and many other jurisdictions, including D.C.) the discharge of an employee for exercising rights guaranteed by public policy (as embodied in a specific statute) may give rise to an action for wrongful termination.
While employers have wide latitude to dismiss at-will employees without notice or cause, the law does not permit discrimination, including terminations, based on race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, or disability. If you suspect you have been wrongfully terminated, it is best to talk to an attorney about your particular situation. By first talking with any of the RRBMDK attorneys that handle employment matters, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about your situation and whether legal action makes sense.